Tragic Death of a Loved One–finding meaning

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I have read and heard you speak about the need to revisit and retell the story of the tragic death of a loved one in order to find meaning in the event.  What stands out in your comments is obvious, but should be underlined, in my view:   the profound Truth about the need to address the traumatic event of a loved one’s dying, that is, the “ugly and difficult” narrative itself, before the full back story of the lost one, in context, can be freed. I just had to comment on this. It seems so apparent.

When I was initially searching for an adequate therapist three years ago after losing my loved one, several therapists, including one who supposedly was a specialist in treating complicated grief, began their assessment with the question how did I meet my friend.  I was speechless. Are  you kidding???  I did prolonged exposure therapy three years ago which at least allowed me tell the story!

What has helped me the most, finally, after three years,  has been to write a creative non fiction piece over this summer.  I will submit it to, for example, Bellevue Literary Review, but even if every literary journal rejects it, I have finally gotten a sense of mastery.  I included the details, restrained but factual, about the reality, in an overall  framing device of assumptive world dissolution and reclamation, which I believe roughly jibes with your position of meaning reconstruction, especially  the reclamation part.  I continue to be so aware of the mental health field’s zeal to just move this pain off stage at whatever cost to the client, so as to reach the goal of shutting the whole thing down.

Am I off base about this, or do you also see the need to retell the hard story of the loss before accessing the real narrative of the relationship that the bereaved is trying to reconnect with?  Your ideas about making sense of the loss are so helpful to me in thinking about this, for myself and for my clients.

Nancy D., LCSW

Dear Nancy,

I appreciate your wise words, which are thoughtful in both senses—reflective and intelligent, on the one hand, and generous and kind to share with me, on the other.  In return, I’m happy to think through with you a bit more these issues of timing in grief therapy, in terms of whether to tackle the event story of the death first, or the back story of the life shared with the loved one.

A cardinal precept for me in therapy is to allow the client to direct us to what she or he (a) deeply needs, and (b) is ready for, in this moment of meeting.  Sometimes I encounter clients who are desperate to share something of their loved one—especially when death seemed to place a cone of silence over their even mentioning the deceased person’s name.  But at other times, as you discovered for yourself, finding a listener who is willing to stand into the retelling of the hardest and darkest parts of the story of the death is a compelling existential necessity—to find an audience for it, a responsive witness, someone not eager to pretty it up or push it aside.  Here, finding a partner in the work who will help the retelling become restorative and not re-traumatizing is what is deeply needed, and is precisely what the mourner is ready for.  This was clearly the case for you, and your artful and authentic narrative in which you found words for your loved one’s death eloquently met this need.  Even if the creative non-fiction that resulted focused more on her or his death than life, I can imagine that your friend would feel pride and hope at the courage this huge step required.

A second thought stimulated by your inquiry bears on the form of the narrative that you wrote to frame your story, which began with all of the profound changes or ruptures introduced into your assumptive world—perhaps a shattering of your sense of predictability or control, or an erosion of your trust in a world that is just or benign.  Starting by exploring the brokenness of the previous meanings you had held, and then in a second step tracing your discoveries or your attempts to reclaim or reconstruct them, seems like a powerful prescription for how to pivot from grief to growth, and one that is very much in keeping with our current research.  In one recent study, for example, we found that challenges to our worldview of taken-for-granted beliefs was precisely the process that bridged between the anguish of complicated grief on the one hand, and the unsought benefit of post-traumatic growth on the other.  Thus, in the form of your story as well as its specific content (which I would welcome a chance to read) I can’t imagine a more significant form of meaning reconstruction.

—Dr. Neimeyer

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